Travels With (New) Diabetes


Editor’s Note: Gretchen is a part of Beyond Type Run Team, which is sponsored by Medtronic. She is participating in the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon. 

I will never forget the summer that changed my life forever. I left everything behind to travel the world in search to find myself and my passion in life. Little did I know that this trip of a lifetime actually landed me in a European hospital for two days, which changed my life and everything that I thought I knew about myself.

After two weeks of traveling alone in New York City in June 2014, I started to slowly notice a significant difference in my body.

I was experiencing severe weight loss, frequent urination, extreme thirst and dry mouth. I am a tough person so none of these symptoms were making me slow down my sightseeing adventures. Ignoring my mysterious symptoms, I hopped onto my next plane for my next traveling adventure in Barcelona, Spain where I would meet up with my mom for a mother-daughter post-graduation trip. During this 14-hour flight, I embarrassedly went to the bathroom at least 20 times.

In Barcelona, I was walking through the Sagrada Familia and Las Ramblas Street where I noticed myself becoming weak and struggling to keep up.

I could not walk long distances anymore and walking up stairs was near impossible for me. As an extremely healthy and active person (cyclist, yogi, marathon runner, surfer, lifeguard, hiker, etc.), this last major symptom hit me hard. I am only 23 years old and I couldn’t keep up with my 50-year-old mom … that’s when I realized, something was very wrong.

Still, I was in no way thinking of my symptoms as anything but jet lag, so the next day I boarded a ship from the port in Barcelona for a Mediterranean cruise that would serve as our floating home for the next 18 days. The first night on the ship, I sat up with my mother discussing these strange and baffling symptoms that my body was experiencing. We were completely perplexed and began to Google the list of symptoms and became very scared at the results. We made a collaborative decision to go immediately to the medical center. There, in the belly of the ship, I was immediately put to bed in their makeshift hospital and hooked up with an IV as I felt a slow panic rise in me.

I could sense that there was something serious going on and I still did not know what it was, but from the alarm and frenzy of the nurses and doctor, I sensed it was not just jet lag or even the flu. I soon was disclosed that I was in full diabetic ketoacidosis and it was serious! There I was floating on a ship in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea with a doctor from South Africa who spoke broken English with a very archaic understanding of type 1 diabetes and my life fully in his hands. To say I was petrified would have been putting it mildly!

My life came to such a screeching halt because this diagnosis hit me on every front of my life, not just physically.

Here I was a picture of health, a 23-year-old athlete beginning my journey into the real world of life after graduating college and this blow was psychologically, spiritually and emotionally devastating, BUT I am a stubborn girl at heart and instead of letting this bring me down, I became even more determined to stay my course on this trip.

The doctor gave us his honest opinion that he fully did not have an understanding of type 1 diabetes and that the equipment that he had on his ship medical clinic was too outdated and primitive to help in ways that a hospital on land could provide. I listened to his concern, but my mind was already made up: I was not going to let this little setback stop me from achieving my goals and keep me from seeing places like the Italian countryside, ancient Greece, unique Turkey, the breathtaking coasts of France and much more. Thankfully, they let me stay and soon released me to be on my own when I was back to a healthy, non-acidic state.

I had to learn everything about managing type 1 diabetes strictly through the Internet and reading articles online. My “fun” vacation was taken up with frequent internet café visits where my mom and I would desperately look for answers for my overwhelming amount of diabetic related questions. With many, many lows and ups (in both blood sugars and moods), I still managed to travel to all the beautiful places that I wanted to go while trying to figure out my body and how to take injections.

As much as I wanted to wake up from this nightmare, I had to stay strong and face the facts. After crying for hours on end, I started looking up ways to help my condition. Dealing with this disease is hard to do (especially on my own), but with the people I met during my travels and the friends that I have made on other diabetic blogs, it has inspired me to make my own site and help other people just like me who are looking for hope and continuing to live a happy life. I can easily say that those people have saved my life and sanity. Without them, I would have not been able to take on this disease as a challenge and not let it define me. I strive to empower and inspire other type 1 diabetics and even non-diabetics to continue to live the positive, healthy and active life that they love.

The top things I’ve learned:

Let yourself feel however you want to feel.

Give yourself permission to feel whatever feeling you feel during this extreme change in your life. It is just apart of the acceptance process. Just as long as you give yourself that time and then move on from that feeling into positivity and productivity. It helps to talk about it with family, or peers, or journal about it and express yourself to help let go of those feelings.

The power of education and awareness.

So many people in the world don’t know what type 1 diabetes is. So it is important to know how to educate your family and friends what the disease is and how to help you if you are ever in a helpless state. Check out this education materials HERE.

It is confusing.

This disease is a very confusing one, because no one knows how it is caused, no one knows how to cure it and no one knows how certain things will affect your body. It can be extremely confusing and frustrating in the first couple of weeks having type 1 because not every body is the same so it really is a science experiment to figure out what works for you. Create a food journal including what you ate, what your blood glucose numbers are and how much insulin you use for each meal. This will allow you to look back and know what your body does for certain meals.

You are not less than.

Just because you have something that other people don’t have to deal with, you are not less than any other person. You can do anything and everything else that other people can.

“What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”

This quote literally speaks the exact truth that I have found through my diagnosis. Type 1 unexpectedly makes you a hundred times stronger than you would ever think you could be. It tests you and pushes you, but it makes you see the true strong person that you are meant to be.

Keep in touch with your body.

Daily duties of pricking your finger and giving injections really heighten your sense of self-awareness. One of the things I have learned through my diagnoses is that I am more in tuned with what my body needs, how it reacts with certain foods, how I feel when my numbers are high and low. All these feelings make you closer to your body and create this relationship that is very important to have in keeping you safe and healthy.

Read The T1D Loner by Alexi Melvin.

WRITTEN BY Gretchen Otte, POSTED 05/31/15, UPDATED 09/17/22

Gretchen is the inspiring voice behind Type One Type Happy—an online motivational journal for diabetics and non-diabetics alike. Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the summer of 2014 in Europe, Gretchen is discovering a new way of living and sharing her journey as a healthy, happy diabetic. When she's not writing, photographing, or inspiring those around her, you'll find Gretchen training for another marathon, eating salads with her pet Bunny Winnie, or surfing in sunny Southern California. You can find her online at or on Instagram @TypeOneTypeHappy!